iDesign Interview: On JBL’s Radical, Whimsical Speakers
The company’s name is Harman International, and by the standards of most iPod accessory companies, the latter word is truly fitting: no matter where we’ve traveled in the world, its JBL and Harman Kardon speaker brands are found in stores, and amongst the most prominent wherever they’re sold. And amazingly, the designs of JBL’s iPod speakers—repeatedly referenced by iLounge’s editors as some of the very best available, both in sound and looks—are largely attributed to Kurt Solland, Vice-President of Design. Credited as the inspiration behind all of Harman’s multimedia products, Mr. Solland works in an interdisciplinary position, simultaneously juggling the competing concerns of design, audio, manufacturing, and marketing.
Following our iDesign feature on these striking JBL and Harman Kardon speakers, we took an opportunity to interview Mr. Solland and learn some behind-the-scenes details about their creation. In so doing, we were stunned by the array of sketches we saw, including dozens of familiar patented designs, as well as never-before-seen concept art for the speakers we’ve admired for years; Mr. Solland’s sometimes whimsical explanations of how Creature, Spyro, and other eye-catching speakers were created also struck us as fascinating. We hope you enjoy the questions, answers, and many images that follow.
(1) When Harman collaborated with Apple to create the affordable, high-design subwoofer iSub, you won industrial design awards and other recognition at a time when multimedia speakers were comparatively staid. How did the iSub experience shape the company’s attitude towards speaker development?
Kurt Solland, Harman: Harman Kardon at one point provided OEM speakers for desktop computers for companies such as Dell, Compaq and Apple. After the release of the iSub, Harman Kardon realized that computer speakers don’t have to be boxes. Speakers don’t have to be six-sided anymore. We began to create an incredible sound wave of design that still continues.
iSub, a collaboration with Apple for its then-new transparent iMacs, inspired Harman to think outside the speaker “box”
(2) Your multimedia and iPod speakers have evolved a lot over the years, but as Champagne and Creature demonstrated years ago, a bold, let’s-be-different attitude runs through the family. Could you walk us through the history of these speakers?
Solland: Let’s start with the Champagne. As mentioned in the history lesson, Harman Kardon provided OEM speakers to computer manufacturers which included Dell, and development of the Champagne speaker system. It evolved from relating to the screen and the computer colors and how they are in a sense like a “desktop sculptures” - this was the foray into what we’ve been doing now.
Known as Champagne, this system’s fluted satellites evoked class at a time when companies made boring PC speakers
The JBL Creature was simply an expression. The design happened in an inspiration moment that came to me when I was thinking to myself, “I’m tired of seeing six sided boxes.” Everybody is doing six sided boxes, they’re painted grey and relating to the monitor. Essentially the concept of this was a little creature which bubbles at your desk and pops up and becomes alive. I saw the Creature with its own personality. You’ll notice the face mask on the satellites, those are actually wave guides for acoustics. They’re were designed to be an ambiguous face where you can project your own emotions on it. Some people see it as friendly, scary and even clover looking.
Creature, an early favorite of iPod owners and iLounge editors, offered superb 2.1-channel sound for a sub-$100 price
The whole concept at that point was to say, “can we create an iconic language where we can cover up the logo with our hand and we can still tell it’s a JBL product?” Following in this mindset, it had to flow with some criteria, like it had to put a smile on your face, it’s clever, is the final design timeless and taking subjectivity out?
Solland: With the introduction of the Apple iPod and our release of the On Stage, we did something thought as ludicrous by some: we put a hole in a speaker. The unit had to be something that worked within Apple but not copy them. To add to that we wanted to make the iPod special, putting it on the forefront and standing up. JBL wanted to create its own identity and sit comfortably next to Apple. When it was first launched in New York, it was referred as “the Bagel” and the West Coast called it “the Donut!”
On Stage, unquestionably the fountainhead for more JBL iPod speakers (On Stage II, On Stage IIUD, On Stage III, On Stage IIIP, On Stage Micro) than any other product
When we got into the JBL On Time, we wanted to take on this idea of “Negative Space” because you can create something that is sculptural. So many times in the speaker, the acoustic requirements you need to have to make the low frequencies work - how can we offload that internal volume and get deep shadows? Since this going to be an iPod product, why don’t we make it a shrine?
The beautiful, shrine-like On Time
In respect to the driver placement, take the On Stage - our acoustic engineers were a little skeptical but it turned out, how they were able to turn the drivers in there, created an amazing point source so it’s omni-directional sound. The same concept carried over with the On Time; it was a crazy way to put the drivers but we made it work. We put a tweeter on top and you’ll notice if you stand in front or behind the On Time, it will sound exactly the same. This is important because you’re no longer in front of a monitor: the six sided box is no longer necessary.
Radial hides a subwoofer under its iPod dock, using chrome bars as a mask
Mr. Solland sculpts a model of what eventually became Radial
With the Radial we took a very similar approach as the On Time but made it sleeker, smoothened out the lines and more streamlined. We also added a big subwoofer.
Go + Play, the Harman Kardon-branded iPod boombox, is another Solland design
Now to the Harman Kardon Go + Play. When this line was being designed, we knew there’s a lot of quality going into the inside of the unit, but on the outside we wanted to make visual cues to say we’re consistent with what’s also in the inside.
Spyro eventually received a color scheme that nearly matched this early concept sketch
The Spyro was inspired by pure happiness. I thought to myself one day, could I sketch out an emotion, something that represents “happy?” It turned into a Spirograph type of thing that looked flowerly.
(4) Your boombox Go + Play is the only iPod-specific speaker released under the Harman brand, despite obvious visual similarities to earlier JBL products. What made Go + Play different enough to rebrand, or was this just an experiment?
Solland: Simply put, we really don’t see the Go + Play system exactly geared as a JBL product at all. The product development process on the Go + Play was to build a Harman/Kardon branded boombox. The design theme purposely extends the look of our Harman Kardon branded home audio products.
(5) JBL and Harman used to stick to sub-$200 price points for multimedia and iPod speakers, but that changed with On Time, Radial, and Go + Play, which all started at price points of $300 or more. Is higher pricing for high design the future for JBL/Harman iPod products, or is the current state of the market making lower pricing more important?
Solland: We know as of 2007 that the average docking product - any - based on NPD Intellect has a selling price of about $127. That’s not to say that consumers don’t have an appetite for something better. Ultimately quality is a key factor. We view our line as an assortment of good, better and best for the sound enthusiast. The best solution will cost more because of the technology that goes into it. It’s not necessarily paying for the “high design” per se. Take the Go + Play as an example: there’s a very sophisticated digital amplifier inside of it and looking at another unit, JBL On Stage Micro, there really isn’t any other amplifier with that much wattage for that level of sophistication. For the consumers that want more performance, the technology that goes into that will essentially cost more too.
A recent design patent shows off a miniature On Time, which may have been shelved in favor of On Time 200ID
Harman is a very unique company in that we build products for the creation of music clear through to the reproduction. From studio monitors to touring systems to audio for the home, office, car and on the go, we are there from start to finish.
(6) The 2008 versions of Duet, On Stage, and On Time made a dramatic visual change from their predecessors, switching from three distinct form factors into a single shape with model-specific tweaks. Why?
Solland: These days products in the space are lifestyle products; they’re integrating in peoples’ living environments, so we’re trying to address that with our industrial design. We have launched additional products that conform to the old form factor, and we’ve launched products with this new form factor.
The original Duet, JBL’s budget-priced multimedia speaker, is shown in an early drawing; though nearly identical to the final product, the drawing bears the Harman logo
We have delivered products with a different look to appeal to consumers that might not respond to the cosmetics of the products that we currently have. The new JBL On Stage 200ID has more of a serene look then a JBL On Stage Micro in nano Red.
On Stage 200ID, which strongly resembles the 2008 versions of Duet, On Stage 400ID, and On Time 200ID and 400IHD
There are more and more people using these types of products in more and more rooms in their house, we want the ability to integrate with their décor. This is one of the key reasons the multimedia line is running multiple designs. Looking at the previous On Time, some loved it, or didn’t so much. Now presently with the new On Time 200 and 400IHD we feel it’s going to be much more at home on a night stand in a bedroom or on the kitchen counter.
(7) One of Harman’s companies, Austria’s AKG, has released K701 and other headphones that bear strong cosmetic similarities to your JBL speaker designs; JBL has also released earphones that are very similar to AKG’s. Have you been involved with creating AKG’s listening gear, as well?
The shapes, grilles, chrome and accents of AKG’s K701 headphones all share similarities with JBL’s speakers, but they’re from different designers
Solland: I’m not involved in the design with AKG.
(8) Customers see and hear your designs only after they’ve been prototyped and tested. Given that you’re working with vibrating speakers and other electronics that don’t always behave as they should, what challenges do you face in making everything perform properly from unit to unit?
Patented designs for a number of alien-influenced JBL speakers that seemingly never saw production, including “Silly Foot,” a whimsical speaker with legs
Solland: I have to be aware of all the acoustic principles when designing speakers. I work with the acoustic engineers daily. You’ll definitely find us pushing and pulling and pushing and pulling, but don’t take that as a bad thing. It’s a perfect balance between performance and design. The design equals performance and vice-versa.
(9) Harman and JBL have a surprisingly strong presence in Apple-related stores overseas. Electrical concerns aside, what sorts of special challenges have you faced in designing globally appealing products? And have you made any region-specific changes, such as limited edition colors, to any of your iPod speaker designs?
Solland: I think if it’s designed very well and it has meaning to the shapes and not arbitrary people will love them. And no, but there have been requests by retailers.
(10) We’re always surprised when we see blatant and “obviously inspired by” knock-offs of JBL’s iPod speakers in shops, though they’re far more common in Asia than in the United States. What are your thoughts on these knock-off products?
Patents protect JBL’s numerous original speaker designs, but overseas cloners have targeted them repeatedly
Solland: They can grab our look but can’t grab our audio smarts. We’ve seen over a dozen variations of knock offs. From an acoustic set stand point, frankly, we’ve yet to come across a knock-off that sounds like a JBL product (laughs). Knock-offs don’t come close to delivering the performance our products have, because they require real engineering. Knock-offs don’t come from engineering companies. Knock-offs are inevitable - products that are cloned because the original is successful. JBL has gone through this ever since it has become a brand, including car and home speakers.
iLounge: Thank you for your time.
[Editor’s Note: Design sketches are courtesy Harman International. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]
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